four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
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A Biography

A-Ralph EllisonIn 1952, the enigmatic Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man, the award-winning novel about identity and racial tension in midcentury America. Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, did not appear until 1999, five years after the author’s death. Drawing on information gathered through unprecedented access to Ellison’s papers, Arnold Rampersad offers the most complete portrait of Ellison yet: the author’s early life in Oklahoma; his love of music, which led to a scholarship at the Tuskegee Institute; his complex relationships with his wives and mentors; and, finally, his years as a fixture in the New York literary scene. Ellison, Rampersad suggests, was as elusive—and at times nearly as volatile—as the unnamed narrator of his famous novel. He was also a brilliant writer whose legacy remains strong half a century after his single overwhelming triumph.
Knopf. 672 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375408274

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"As the first scholar granted complete access to the Ellison papers, Rampersad introduces us to people and places that reveal the total range of Ellison’s sensibilities as a complex man. Through elegant and lively prose, Rampersad reveals sides of Ellison that are disturbing and instructive, uncovering the man whose reputation, like his novel, was shrouded in myth and symbol." Jeffrey B. Leak

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"By discovering and connecting and explaining all that is visible about Ralph Ellison, Arnold Rampersad has triumphed. His work reveals the invisible man." Daniel Dyer

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Rampersad’s exemplary biography, written with a blend of deep sympathy and cool detachment, splendidly achieves the one true task of literary biography: It illuminates the life so that we may better understand what it produced." Charles Matthews

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Arnold Rampersad’s addictively readable and exhaustively comprehensive biography paints an unflinching picture of a talented artist who allowed success and a willful disengagement from upheaving changes and events to keep him a one-hit wonder… Rampersad’s candid biography may sour readers on Ellison. But there is no denying his influence." Ariel Gonzalez

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"In his absorbing biography, Arnold Rampersad chronicles Ellison’s journey from the poverty of segregated Oklahoma to the rarefied literary circles of Manhattan. The Stanford University professor, who also has written biographies of Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson and W. E. B. Du Bois, was given unlimited access to the Ellison estate, and he uses it to stunning effect." Margo Hammond

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Arnold Rampersad’s exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting—book about the author of Invisible Man offers an unflinching portrait of Ellison as a brilliant, belligerent artist. … An intensely researched, elegantly written book that commands readers’ respect, but not our love." Valerie Boyd

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Rampersad’s Ellison … is a great artist and a deeply flawed human being: angry, touchy, emotionally stingy and cruel to the point of sadism to his long-suffering second wife, Fanny, whose warmth, lively intelligence and spontaneity … make her a luminous if unappreciated presence in her husband’s life. … With a few exceptions, Mr. Rampersad is fair to a fault." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Arnold Rampersad, professor of English and humanities at Stanford, makes the most of his access to the papers of Ralph Ellison. He sifted through mountains of previously unexamined documents for the details that give readers a glimpse—warts and all—of the man behind Invisible Man. Rampersad’s experience with biography runs deep, which explains his ability to give us an honest account of Ellison’s life. Ralph Ellison is engaging and far-reaching, if long. It also balances revealing anecdotes about Ellison’s views on Black militarism and his relationships, for example, with an examination of the author’s place in American letters and his lasting influence on generations of writers. Readers may not think as highly of Ellison when they’re done, but they will come to know the man.